The idea of “fairness” is embedded within our natural DNA. If you observe little children on a playground you will see justice and injustice at work. If little boy A cuts in line at the swing set, little girl B will react in dismay, maybe even anger.   Or, if little boy C steals little girl D’s pudding out of her lunch box, you will witness instant tears and, perhaps, instant violence in little girl D. We are wired to understand fairness.

Consider with me, please, how the idea of fairness can sometimes dictate our decision to forgive or not to forgive.

Unforgiveness is often used as a weapon. I would go so far as to say forgiveness feels unnatural. The more natural response to being offended or otherwise hurt would be to defend one’s self from the offender by setting up walls of protection, either literal or mental and emotional. Unforgiveness can be compared to these walls of protection. When we choose not to forgive someone who has hurt us, we are assuming the role of warden standing in front of the jail in which we have thrown our own hearts. We put our hearts behind bars where they will be safe and out of harm’s way.

What happens to a heart that continues pumping within the cement and steel of confinement?

It hardens. It becomes judgmental. It becomes confused and lonely.  C.S. Lewis says, in his book The Four Loves,

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Unforgiveness looks like strength on the outside. It can look like confident self-reliance and determination. It can look like focused dependence, good boundaries and freedom to love anything or anyone other than he who dealt the offense in the first place. It can look this way for a season.

Unforgiveness often causes the jailed heart to run from inmate to inmate looking for someone who can help ease the discomfort of being in jail. The imprisoned heart embraces others, often without discerning the person she is embracing. She runs from face to face, warm body to warm body and when she cannot find solace in other people, she often turns to tasks of jobs or dreams. The jailed heart is restless, anxious and, eventually, she becomes tired.

Why would someone choose to keep her heart in jail? Fear.

It is easier to run away than to face difficult people or situations. Often, those who run the fastest in the opposite direction of their freedom are those who purpose to create an image of strength as a means of protecting themselves from further pain. Unfortunately, running away from one pain does not make the pain vanish. Instead, that running leaves the runner winded. Running from an internal pain is like trying to run away from a bad guy on a treadmill: the pain is inside and cannot be escaped through physical, relational, emotional or mental speed.

The only way to escape the pain caused by another person—whether the offense is labeled betrayal, lies, gossip, abandonment, selfishness, or abuse—is to release your heart from the jail cell called unforgiveness into the open air of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not for the perpetrator. Forgiveness is for you. Forgiveness is not weakness—running away is weakness. Forgiveness is the strength to escape your own jail cell.

What if the perpetrator, family and/or friends perceive your forgiveness as weakness? Does that matter to you? If so, I would ask you to consider this thought, “Am I willing to stay in bondage in order to keep the good opinion of someone I love?” If someone truly loves you, she will demonstrate her love by wanting what is best for you.

You will know when someone truly loves you when she not only says she wants your highest good but also actively participates in your quest for your highest good. Conversely, anyone who encourages you to conform to their will through manipulation, codependence and/or their own fear of losing a prominent position of emotional authority in your life, may be purposing to keep you in jail:

Misery loves company.

Hurting people hurt people.

Fearful people try to control others.

If you have been refusing to forgive someone because you are afraid you will be opening yourself to vulnerability, (i.e. Because you are afraid of being hurt again) I ask you to contemplate three things:

  1. Do you realize you can forgive without reconciling, or re-establishing a relationship with the person who hurt you?
  2. Do you hold on to unforgiveness because you feel it gives you control in the relationship?
  3. Are you scared to forgive because someone else in your life is manipulating you with his/her own bitterness or spite?

Fairness on the playground demands justice:

  • If you take my kickball, I will take yours.
  • If you cheat at tetherball, I can cheat too.
  • If you hit me, I can hit you back.

We no longer live on the playground. As adults we can live by a different set of rules:

  • If you hurt me, I can choose freedom.
  • If you try to smother my heart, I can choose to walk out from under your shadow.
  • If you are the person I feel I cannot forgive, you are the person I am going to forgive today because my freedom is more important than my desire to get even.

It takes courage to face the fact that you have the choice to forgive.  Be strong.  Be courageous.  Be free.